Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The choice of two Americas

Will we finally lose forever the America we had?

By John L. Guerra

It is September and the unsettled mind sets in as it does every September.
I am a highly seasonal being, ruled by the relationship of the sun to the Earth. In the winter, I tend to hibernate and read even more than my voracious appetite usually requires. In the summer, my body seeks submersion in water and ocean breezes.
In September, my very being tugs me to the road. Don't know why, but that's just the way it has always been. Perhaps it's that very American instinct to get across the Rockies before the passes close, or something like that.
During my fourth September, my parents awoke at sunrise to find me missing from our little Cape Cod house in Rockville, Md. A policeman driving across a bridge spanning the railroad tracks spotted me below, walking down the center of the Baltimore and Ohio rail bed some two miles from my house. I was dressed in my pajamas, headed out of town. Good thing the cop saw me. The morning commuter train from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore and up the East Coast runs through town every mornng. Some argue that was the only train wreck I ever avoided. This is a true story and I bet many of you out there get the travel urge in the fall.

This year September has a thin layer of brooding to it, especially as we ponder the fate of this country and the choice we have before us Nov. 6. Do we keep Barack Obama, who I believe is doing his best to hold the center of our social structure together, or do we get Mitt Romney and the extremists in the Republican Party whose vision is of an America with much less support for the middle class and poor? I wish I were exaggerating, but I've read their proposed budgets; seen the arrogance and cynicism in their eyes as they repeatedly refused to even debate, much-less bring to the floor, a jobs bill or home owner rescue bill that might have ended some of the financial suffering.
There is much to be disappointed about in Obama; he hasn't exactly been the reformer we'd hoped. In the first 100 days of his term, traditionally the time when presidents hit the ground running, he seemed much too timid in his dealings with the opposition. He's had some big wins--the new healthcare law, saving General Motors and automotive industry jobs, and of course, whacking Osama Bin Laden in his bedroom--and under his leadership I feel there's at least an adult in the White House. George Bush Jr. ended his second term and the center sighed, "Thank God that's over."
The way we debate in this country has changed since my walk on the railroad tracks.
My America (I was born in 1958) seemed to be a place of optimistic adults, great options, and intelligent neighbors. I do remember when one's political opinion did not bring anger and vilification from others. Americans didn't voice so much invective at Others With Different Opinions. I know our cities were burning; I know Vietnam split this nation apart; I know we lost some of our best and brightest to the sniper's rifle. In spite of those horrible events I feel more ill at ease now for our future than I did then.
I don't hate Republicans. I want to make that clear, because it has to be said to any Republicans or conservatives who are reading this. I just want to give my opinion.

The center the enemy of the people?

Instead of open discussion and good-natured debate, too often Republicans spout that I am a second-class American. That I'm a non-patriot, a lover of terrorists, and a member of the Liberal media. They seem to say that about anyone who does not agree with their platform. Unfortunately, they use such terms when describing millions of others like me who occupy the political center. Those who don't agree with their plan to de-fund Social Security are Socialists, for instance, and are a danger to the American democratic way of life. Don't agree with the invasion of Iraq after 9/11? To Republicans, that meant one thing: I don't support the troops. I support terrorism.

Republican presidents were good for U.S.

In my America, Republicans had good ideas and I enjoyed debating friends from the right. I agreed with many of the policies GOP presidents led. Richard Nixon gave us the Environmental Protection Agency. He signed the law that created the Endangered Species Act. Upon signing the law that holds developers, corporations, and individuals accountable when they destroy habitat or harm or kill animals, Nixon said: "Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed."
That's a big difference from the present-day GOP leadership that scoffs at any evidence of polar bears in trouble or the Bush Jr. White House, which struck language from Office of Science and Technology Policy reports that described man-caused climate change and its destruction of environment and wildlife in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Nixon also opened relations with Communist China, an incredible move for its time and its effects are everlasting. Going back farther, Teddy Roosevelt created the National Park System, beginning with Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park. Class warfare? Teddy, just barely 40 years old, went after steel, coal, oil, train, maritime shipping, and other giant business trusts run by the Gilded families. The result was the stripping of absolute business power from a handful of wealthy men who felt the federal government was merely a foot stool.
The federal government, in fact, did owe these men a favor. J.P. Morgan, Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and other wealthy me had lent money to the U.S. Treasury to keep Washington in the black during tough economic times. But Teddy Roosevelt, the young, Republican upstart, sat the old lions in a room at the White House and lectured them on the way things were going to be now that he was president. The barons tried to stop Roosevelt, but he launched legislation that gave the federal government power to regulate monopolies. By the way, another Republican president, William Howard Taft, sought court decisions to declare monopolies illegal.

New GOP run by fringe

The Romneys and other leaders of the Republican Party are not the Republicans of the 1950s, 1960s, or even the 1970s. Before the Tea Party and other radical right theorists rose in prominence in the GOP, Republican Party leaders like Dwight Eisenhower did what they could to isolate the anti-Communist, anti-Catholic John Birchers, the Phyllis Schaflys (who brought Southern Baptists and other Christian activists into the GOP by holding anti-Communism workshops in church basements) and other radical right wingers of their party when he led the GOP in the 1950s. He and other Republican leaders wanted nothing more than to build a Republican Party of moderates, expecially including the growing middle class, the families of which were headed by the millions of soldiers he commanded in Europe.

How to keep the center
The GI Bill, a large government social program Eisenhower endorsed and helped oversee, created a highly successful and upwardly mobile middle class. It is true, in 1959, that Eisenhower was against expanding the benefits to peacetime military, but he understood its importance to preventing a repeat of the Great Depression after World War I and the law's ability to prevent another Bonus Army March on the Mall in Washington, D.C., as occurred after World War I.
The creation of the GI Bill, however, was clearly a Republican act.
Benefits included low-cost mortgages, loans to start a business or farm, cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend college, high school or vocational education, as well as one year of unemployment compensation. By the end of the program in 1956, roughly 2.2 million veterans had used the GI Bill education benefits to attend colleges or universities. An additional 6.6 million used these benefits for some kind of training program.
It was passed during the Truman Administration, but that's beside the point. Unlike Romney's promise to kill Obama's health care program should he win the White House, Eisenhower embraced the GI bill created by his Democratic predecessor.
Harry W. Colmery, a World War I veteran and ex-Republican National Committee chairman, outlined his idea for the G.I. Bill on stationery and a napkin at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. By the way, the GOP was willing to fund the vast GI Bill at a time when the wealthiest Americans paid an average of 51 percent income tax. In 2012, the wealthiest Americans pay much less--closer to 16 percent. The decline in what the wealthy pay in taxes is the result of the tax policies of both parties over the decades, according to the book, "Death of the American Dream."

Attack, attack
When it comes to reaching out to the center, today's national Republican Party leaders have the sentimentality of Sen. Joe Mcarthy, who in the 1950s accused many in the center of being dangerous fellow travelers of Communist International.
I did not just read about the radical right's violent opposition to the center somewhere. I personally have been attacked on dozens of right-wing websites, including the Drudge Report,, and others for my belief that strident Republicans created a dangerous atmosphere during the healthcare debates that could have led someone to take a shot at Obama.
Though my writing to them was extremely agitated, (the better to reach them, I thought) my opinion was not unique; columnists in many mainstream publications were warning ill-informed Tea Party activists to calm down and to stop carrying guns and clubs to public healthcare hearings around the country. One Tea Party member, carrying a sign declaring himself so, threw to the ground and stomped a young woman who carried a placard supporting Obama's program. Onlookers didn't move for several moments as the man repeatedly lifted his size 12 shoe and brought it down on her neck. Thankfully, other Tea Party members pulled him off.
At other events, reporters who tried to cover Tea Party candidates were detained by private security agents and in many cases were forcibly thrown out of events.
Far from urging calm debate, Republican candidates like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman used terms like "Second-Amendment solutions" (referring to guns) and declared Obama as dangerous as Hitler or Stalin. Palin, the vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, accused him of being a terrorist.
I happily admit that so far the ugliness has not reared its head nearly as high this election cycle and that's good news. Whether Romney has laid down the law, we're not hearing as much invective against the Democratic candidate. Remarkable, too, because the two are so close in the polls. Perhaps they'll get ugly in the run up to Election Day.

A parting vision

Back to September and the road. Jack Kerouac wrote about the America I remember. In September, when I have that urge to travel, I pull him off the shelf. Here's the America that I love, and I know Republicans love, too.  We have common ground. There are still millions of Republicans who disagree with the politics of their present platform and love the simple things in life. In this column, I merely wanted to point out that those who are in charge of the party are not the same kind of people who led the party in the past.
Anyway, here's our American writer, celebrating the country that we all love. He and his friends in the post-war world, in a 1946 Cadillac, a truly American car. From On the Road:

In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A hundred and ten miles an hour straight through, an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific streamliner falling behind us in the moonlight.
It was a magnificent car; it could hold the road like a boat holds on water. Gradual curves were its singing ease. 'Ah, man, what a dreamboat,' sighed Dean.

Now doesn't that sound like something worth remembering as we debate how we want this country to proceed? I know, Romney was against saving General Motors during the 2008 financial collapse, but if you ask most Republicans, I'd bet they're happy the 2012 Cadillac and other Detroit steel is available this year.

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